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Brett Whiteley Self portrait in the studio 1976

Brett Whiteley

Australia 1939-1992
The art of Sydney-born Whiteley was intimately connected to his tumultuous, creative life. Largely a self-taught artist, he travelled widely, beginning with the Italian Government Travelling Art Scholarship at age 20, after which he moved to London in 1961 where he established an international reputation. In 1969 he returned to Australia, settling in Lavender Bay, after two years in the US and five months in Fiji. His last studio and home, at 2 Raper Street, Surry Hills in Sydney, is now a museum managed by the Art Gallery of NSW.

Among many accolades, Whiteley won the Archibald Prize twice (including for Self portrait in the studio 1976) and the Wynne Prize and Sulman Prize three times each, and was the first artist to win all three in one year, in 1978.

Self portrait in the studio 1976

Like many other Whiteley paintings of this period, this large canvas was principally inspired by the art of Henri Matisse and uses ultramarine blue, which Whiteley favoured for its ‘ecstasy-like effect’.

It includes a snippet of real hair as well as a self-portrait of Whiteley in a mirror. The mirror acts as an entry point to both a psychological space (revealing something of his state of mind) and a physical space (his home at Lavender Bay on Sydney Harbour). The tiny portrait also reflects the influence of Francis Bacon, another of Whiteley’s artist heroes, and of Asian culture, in which people are often portrayed as merely part of a larger landscape.

People and places

After returning to Australia after a long period overseas, Whiteley moved to Lavender Bay in November 1969, with his then wife Wendy, and painted in a studio downstairs in the house from 1975 to 1981. On Sydney’s north shore, the suburb has beautiful views over Sydney Harbour. The ambience of the house and the harbour offered a perfect vehicle for Whiteley’s gift at composing works with large, empty spaces, and evoked strong feelings that at last he had come home. Today, the public area at the foot of the house, between Clark Park on Lavender Street and the Lavender Bay railway lines is known as ‘Wendy’s Secret Garden’, after Wendy transformed the once-neglected space.